Ahead of a commemoration ceremony taking place in Rathvilly, Co Carlow next Sunday, 31st October at 11am on the eve of the 101st anniversary of the execution of Carlow teenager, Kevin Barry, his grandniece Siofra O’Donovan writes:
“Why remember anything about our past, at all?
Why bother?
Perhaps because, if we allow ourselves to sink into amnesia, if we allow history to be rewritten, we will sink further into the murky delusion we are in right now.
The value and intention of those who fought for Independence can and is often dismissed, ironically, as a hokey right wing hobby that could endanger the state.
Our Taoiseach has spoken with vitriol about those who carry the national flag while protesting about the loss of sovereignty in this country.
When Kevin Barry (1902-1920), an 18 year old medical student who had already been involved in the H Company of the Dublin Brigade in the IRA for three years before he was executed, was commemorated in 2001 with the exhumation of his body from Mountjoy prison to Glasnevin Cemetery, along with eight other men who had also lain in the grounds of Mountjoy from 1920-21, there were some interesting reactions.
The historian Tim Carey was quoted by Willie Dillon in his article in the Irish Independent on Saturday, 29 September 2001 with the headline ‘Kevin Barry: patriot or terrorist?’
‘It was wrong to view our history through the prism of Northern Ireland. They were part of an Independence movement which laid the foundations of the State.
They fought and died for what they believed in. They were convicted of attacking or killing military, not civilians. For people to equate Kevin Barry with the Taliban is absolutely scandalous.’
Maurice Manning also felt it was not fair to equate the acts of Kevin Barry and other men as terrorists.
He was quoted in the Irish Independent: ‘One of the great mistakes is to take people and historical events out of their context. When you say terrorism today, you immediately think of the Twin Towers and some of the terrible atrocities of the North.’
However, Manning did believe that the timing of the burials and the sheer scale and volume of the event did little to prevent the stirring up of old wounds and much to promote a power-hungry Fianna Fáil, who were facing into an election. ‘Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are locked in a battle for the nationalist vote. There was huge pressure put on RTÉ for maximum coverage.’
Others were entirely dismissive, like Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times.
A niece of Bernard Ryan, (one of the executed and exhumed men) Eileen O’Sullivan, was particularly irked by the columnist’s denunciation of the state funeral as ‘A Grotesque Denial of Bloodshed’.
He wrote that nobody could deny the Irish tradition of political funerals and martyrs, such as that of MacSwiney and O’Donovan Rossa, but called the planned event ‘funerary propaganda’, and that this was why Fianna Fáil ‘imagined that this would be a good time to claim the grave of Kevin Barry’.
He wrote that it was ‘an act of denial, deliberately designed to sanitise the ambiguities of people like Kevin Barry whose idealistic certainties makes them reckless of other people’s lives’.
As a response to the media’s anticipatory condemnation of the state funeral, Tom McGurk responded in the Sunday Business Post with an article called ‘A War Worth Remembering’, with the subtitle, ‘Those who condemn Kevin Barry and others for their violence ignore the fact that colonisation is in itself an act of violence.’
The Twin Towers had, of course, just collapsed and the demonisation of the Muslim world had begun to rise to levels that may have been precedented only by the Crusades of the Middle Ages.
In 2001 the media narrative struck out with the ‘Taliban’ and ‘Bin Laden’ as the new dirty words.
Some criticised the state funeral with its exhumations as appallingly timed, just weeks after this terrorist attack that had rocked the world.
It was inevitable that there would be interpretations of the state funeral as divisive. However, in Ireland, things had tentatively begun to improve since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. For the first time since ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, there was a semblance of peace.
Partition had, as it had in India in the wake of their newly found independence, caused war.
When Michael Collins had signed what was offered by Lloyd George in 1921, he said himself that he knew that he was ‘signing [his] own death warrant’. There are obvious parallels with the Indo-Pakistan war in 1947–48, fought over the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, the first of four Indo-Pakistan wars fought between the two newly independent nations. British colonialists had a habit of leaving wars in their wake.
But even when Kevin was at UCD during the War of Independence, there were those who looked on the IRA with disdain.
Todd Andrews, (grandfather of Late Late show host Ryan Tubridy), regarded the Literary and Historical Society in UCD as being run by ‘the sons of Castle Catholics and the detritus of the Irish Party… a mere training ground for lawyers and careerists waiting for the coming of Home Rule, who regard the IRA as gun bullies and even murderers …’. Yet the ‘gun bullies’ had a rather honorable task: to break free of a colonial, foreign power that had occupied the country for hundreds of years. And that they succeeded (mostly) in laying the foundations for a democratic republic, which we still have today.
The IRA were a democratically-mandated army, backed by and made accountable to Dáil Éireann.
Kevin Barry did not set out to murder in cold blood, as the court martial verdict determined: that he did wilfully and feloniously and with malice aforethought, murder.
He was in a war against the British Army. Against this bulwark, he refused to give the names of his comrades. Kevin’s courage in refusing to give the British establishment the names of his comrades, with whom he conducted the ambush on the Monk’s Bakery on 20 September 1920 at 11.20am.
Yet, despite this war and Kevin’s dedication to the liberation of his country, he is remembered, most especially by his descendants who grew up familiar with his marvellously witty letters… in all the gravity of that which he lived through the 1916 Rising, the Great War, the real pandemic of Spanish Influenza, and the the War Of Independence, he still managed to have fun.
Even with the curfew imposed in February 1920, Dublin still spilled over with life, in stark contrast to the ghost town we see today.
In a letter to his friend Bapty Maher (who later married Kevin’s sister Shel Barry), he wrote from the family home in Tombeagh, Hacketstown, Co Carlow:
‘How the devil are you at all? You know you might write to a fellow once in a while. I wouldn’t mind me not writing because I’m very busy – pictures, National Library (ahem) and Grafton (5pm to 6pm), but a fellow like you – a bloody gentleman of leisure, you know it’s unforgivable.
‘By the way, that bloody bastard never came with the suit, with the result that I have to borrow one for a dance tomorrow night. Write and tell him that I say he’s a so and so.’
‘When will you be up in town? You ought to come for a céilídhe (College of Science) on the 30th Jan … yours ’til hell freezes, Kevin.’
What does Kevin Barry and his story mean in the Ireland of today?
Under British rule, most ironically, there was more freedom than there is today (socially) with the severity of restrictions.
Kevin’s social life in Dublin has vanished (unless one abides by absurd rules).
The world had just survived the Spanish Influenza, which infected 500 million and took the lives of 50 million.
The world had come through the most traumatic conflict it had ever seen, the Great War of 1914-18, and the Rising in 1916. Yet you could still dance and be merry. Even with a curfew.
If we do not commemorate Kevin Barry, we fail to recognise that we live in the Republic of Ireland because of such men.
To judge men like Kevin Barry 100 years later is fail to even attempt historical empathy. If you were alive in 1920 and your country was under siege, if Black and Tans were burning down Cork city and sacking Balbriggan, you might consider joining a company of the IRA.
At the time, you might have chosen the safer option – Home Rule. But had you chosen to keep pushing, albeit employing violence to meet that violence, to fight for a Republic under a democratic mandate by a democratically-elected government of Dáil Éireann, you might look at it with different eyes today.
We need to commemorate. To remember. Why not? France, America, India … all celebrate their independence.
They don’t hesitate, they don’t quibble over whether or not they should commemorate the soldiers who died on the side of the opposing army. That, it is understood, is a task for the people of their own nations.
Would the British commemorate republican heroes at their anniversary events? Hardly. That those men died in the ambush was tragic and it was not part of the plan, as devised by Captain Seamus Kavanagh of the H Company.
Those young privates of the Lancashire Fusiliers who lost their lives on the day of the ambush at the Monk’s Bakery – Privates Whitehead, Washington and Humphries – had distraught mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, just as Kevin Barry did. That, most sadly, is the nature of war.
The commemoration will take place in Rathvilly, Co Carlow this Sunday, 31st October at 11am on the eve of the 101st anniversary of Kevin’s execution, a year later than was due. A bronze, life-size statue of Kevin Barry by Willie Malone will be officially unveiled, with the army buglers. Be there.”
(Síofra O’Donovan MA is an author, writing coach and is on the panel of Writers in Schools scheme.
Her biography of Kevin Barry, “Yours ’Til Hell Freezes” is available from all good bookshops, or you can order online through